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You Can't Say That Forbidden words and the ridiculous "education" guidelines that forbid them.
BY DIANE RAVITCH Friday, February 13, 2004
To judge by the magazines we read, the programs we watch or the music lyrics we hear, it would seem that almost anything goes, these days, when it comes to verbal expression. But that is not quite true.
In my book "The Language Police," I gathered a list of more than 500 words that are routinely deleted from textbooks and tests by "bias review committees" employed by publishing companies, state education departments and the federal government. Among the forbidden words are "landlord," "cowboy," "brotherhood," "yacht," "cult" and "primitive." Such words are deleted because they are offensive to various groups--feminists, religious conservatives, multiculturalists and ethnic activists, to name a few.
I invited readers of the book to send me examples of language policing, and they did, by the score. A bias review committee for the state test in New Jersey rejected a short story by Langston Hughes because he used the words "Negro" and "colored person." Michigan bans a long list of topics from its state tests, including terrorism, evolution, aliens and flying saucers (which might imply evolution).
A textbook writer sent me the guidelines used by the Harcourt/Steck/Vaughn company to remove photographs that might give offense. Editors must delete, the guidelines said, pictures of women with big hair or sleeveless blouses and men with dreadlocks or medallions. Photographs must not portray the soles of shoes or anyone eating with the left hand (both in deference to Muslim culture). To avoid giving offense to those who cannot afford a home computer, no one may be shown owning a home computer. To avoid offending those with strong but differing religious views, decorations for religious holidays must never appear in the background.
A college professor informed me that a new textbook in human development includes the following statement: "As a folksinger once sang, how many roads must an individual walk down before you can call them an adult." The professor was stupefied that someone had made the line gender-neutral and ungrammatical by rewriting Bob Dylan's folk song "Blowin' in the Wind," which had simply asked: "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?"
While writing "The Language Police," I could not figure out why New York State had gone so far beyond other states in punctiliously carving out almost all references to race, gender, age and ethnicity, including even weight and height. In June 2002, the state was mightily embarrassed when reports appeared about its routine bowdlerizing on its exams of writers such as Franz Kafka and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
The solution to the puzzle was recently provided by Candace deRussy, a trustee of the State University of New York. Ms. DeRussy read "The Language Police," and she too wondered how the New York State Education Department had come to censor its regents exams with such zeal. She asked the department to explain how it decided which words to delete and how it trained its bias and sensitivity reviewers.
At one point, state officials said that since June 2002 (the time of the debacle) they have adhered to only one standard: "Test developers should strive to identify and eliminate language, symbols, words, phrases, and content that are generally regarded as offensive by members of racial, ethnic, gender, or other groups, except when judged to be necessary for adequate representation of the domain." Ms. DeRussy guessed (correctly) that the state was holding back the specific instructions that had emboldened the bowdlerizers. She decided to use the state's freedom-of-information law to find out more. Months later, a state official sent her the training materials for the bias and sensitivity reviewers, which included a list of words and phrases and a rationale for language policing.
So here is how New York made itself an international joke. The state's guidelines to language sensitivity, citing Rosalie Maggio's "The Bias-Free Wordfinder," says: "We may not always understand why a certain word hurts. We don't have to. It is enough that someone says, 'That language doesn't respect me.'?" That is, if any word or phrase is likely to give anyone offense, no matter how far-fetched, it should be deleted.
Next the state asked: "Is it necessary to make reference to a person's age, ancestry, disability, ethnicity, nationality, physical appearance, race, religion, sex, sexuality?" Since the answer is frequently no, nearly all references to such characteristics are eliminated. Because these matters loom large in history and literature--and because they help us to understand character, life circumstances and motives--their silent removal is bound to weaken or obliterate the reader's understanding.
Like every other governmental agency concerned with testing, the New York State Education Department devised its own list of taboo words. There are the usual ones that have offended feminists for a generation, like "fireman," "authoress," "handyman" and "hostess." New York exercised its leadership by discovering bias in such words as "addict" (replace with "individual with a drug addiction"); "alumna, alumnae, alumni, alumnus" (replace with "graduate or graduates"); "American" (replace with "citizen of the United States or North America"); "cancer patient" (replace with "a patient with cancer"); "city fathers" (replace with "city leaders").
Meanwhile, the word "elderly" should be replaced by "older adult" or "older person," if it is absolutely necessary to mention age at all. "Gentleman's agreement" must be dropped in favor of an "informal agreement." "Ghetto" should be avoided; instead describe the social and economic circumstances of the neighborhood. "Grandfather clause" is helplessly sexist; "retroactive coverage" is preferred instead. The term "illegal alien" must be replaced by "undocumented worker."
Certain words are unacceptable under any circumstances. For example, it is wrong to describe anyone as "illegitimate." Another word to be avoided is "illiterate." Instead, specify whether an individual is unable to read or write, or both. Similarly, any word that contains the three offensive letters "m-a-n" as a prefix or a suffix must be rousted out of the language. Words like "manhours," "manpower," "mankind" and "manmade" are regularly deleted. Even "penmanship," where the guilty three letters are in the middle of the word, is out.
New York identified as biased such male-based words as "masterpiece" and "mastery." Among the other words singled out for extinction were white collar, blue collar, pink collar, teenager, senior citizen, third world, uncivilized, underprivileged, unmarried, widow or widower, and yes man. The goal, naturally, is to remove words that identify people by their gender, age, race, social position or marital status.
Thus the great irony of bias and sensitivity reviewing. It began with the hope of encouraging diversity, ensuring that our educational materials would include people of different experiences and social backgrounds. It has evolved into a bureaucratic system that removes all evidence of diversity and reduces everyone to interchangeable beings whose differences we must not learn about--making nonsense of literature and history along the way.
Ms. Ravitch is the author of "The Language Police" (Knopf).
Re: Stoopid kids, courtesy of stoopider educators [Re: Phred] #2341071 - 02/16/04 02:35 PM (13 years, 7 months ago)
A college professor informed me that a new textbook in human development includes the following statement: "As a folksinger once sang, how many roads must an individual walk down before you can call them an adult."
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